Pure Genius

Research shows musicians have better hearing

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A new study shows musicians trump non-musicians when it comes to communicating in noisy environments.

Musicians rock. At least when it comes to their ability to communicate in noisy environments, according to a recent study reported by The Journal of Neuroscience.

The study, conducted by neurobiologists at Northwestern University’s School of Communication, is the first to show that musicians are better than non-musicians at recognizing speech in noisy environments, or that musicians have a perceptual advantage for “speech-in-noise.”

Mike Harvey, an instructor in American University’s Audio Technology department, said he’s not surprised by the findings.

“When you’re learning or practicing, especially for jazz or rock musicians, it’s common to put on a record and play along,” Harvey said. “Say you’re playing the sax and you play along with John Coltrane to learn the lick, but you have to be able to discern between those very similar parts--what’s on the record and what you’re playing, even as you’re trying to play along. That really is a huge skill.”

In the study, 16 young, highly trained, mostly classical musicians and 15 non-musicians wore headsets and were fed carefully selected target audio noise (specific speech sounds, consonants, syllables) and background noise (multi-talker babble spoken by six different speakers). The researchers then compared nerve center responses in each of the participants and found that in both quiet and noisy environments, the highly trained musician could more readily discern the target acoustic stimulus.

"Converting key elements that comprise speech sounds--consonants, syllables, timing and harmonics--was maintained with greater fidelity in musicians despite the disruptive influence of background noise," said lead researcher Nina Kraus, Hugh Knowles Professor at Northwestern University and director of the school’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory.

The researchers hypothesized that musicians may have an advantage in “speech-in-noise” environments because of lifelong experience with musical stream segregation, or separating competing voices and musical instruments during a performance. Kraus said that the advantage for “speech-in-noise” perception in musicians was positively correlated with the extent of musical experience—the more years of musical training, the stronger the effect.

The advantage likely occurs because cognitive processes that involve auditory attention and memory strengthen musicians' nervous systems, enabling them to sense and discern relevant sounds. Understanding the biological basis for this advantage is the goal of the research, which may also prove beneficial for children and adults who have difficulty hearing in noise.

Kraus emailed that their studies will continue to explore the biological evidence of the educational benefits of music. “We’re following children developmentally and longitudinally as they engage in musical training and education,” she wrote. “We are examining effects of musical experience on the nervous system and on learning and perceptual outcomes.”

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure